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Ranking The Importance of Each Player on the 2019-2020 Kentucky Basketball Roster

It’s mid-August, and while the world has turned its attention to football (as it should) what gets lost in the shuffle is that we are, believe it or not, right around 80 days until the start of the college hoops season. Opening night on November 6 may seem like a lifetime from now, but make no mistake, it will get here before you know it.

So with such a short time between now and the start of the season it’s never too early to look ahead. Which is exactly what I’ve been doing the last few weeks here at KSR. A few weeks ago I looked at a Way Too Early SEC basketball projection, and this week I decided to bring it a little closer to home with Kentucky. Specifically, I wondered to myself, “for Kentucky to have a successful season next year” what needs to happen? More importantly, who needs to play well?

With that, it brings me to this article today: Ranking the most important Kentucky basketball players heading into next season.

Now before we get started, a few disclaimers: This is a ranking of the guys who will be most important specifically to next season, as the Wildcats pursue a potential national title. This isn’t who was good in high school, who is the best NBA prospect, or who could evolve down the line into a star in Lexington. It is specifically about next season and the impact they will have.

With that, who are the most important Wildcats next year? Let’s take a look, as I rank all the scholarship players.

10) Dontaie Allen, F (Freshman)

This is just about the only “easy” ranking on this list.

That’s because while the reports out of summer camp are that Allen could be ready to go for the start of the season and could have an instant impact, we just don’t know for sure. Not after Allen sat out all of summer workouts while recovering from a car crash.

The good news is that the crash seems like it will have little impact on Allen’s future on the court. But until we know for sure when he will be back, it’s tough to put him any higher on this list.

9) Nick Richards, C (Junior)

It’s impossible to put together a list like this without someone feeling slighted. And in this case, that burden falls on Richards. Which is a shame. Because make no mistake: He will have a major impact on this year’s team.

The problem is, it’s hard to see him having a larger impact than anyone below him on this list.

That’s because while Richards does provide a skill-set that is completely unique to him (rim protection), defense is only part of basketball. And the early returns out of summer workouts are that his offensive repertoire hasn’t improved significantly enough where he will make a major leap in 2019-2020.

So, with that it seems fair to ask: If Richards hasn’t improved dramatically on offense, just how much will Kentucky play him? Especially on a roster that has all the pieces to run really good and effective small ball lineups.

Truth be told, I hope Richards proves me wrong. But right now, it just seems hard to put him any higher on this list.

8) Nate Sestina, F (Redshirt Senior)

Full disclosure: I’ve said since the day Nate Sestina committed that I wonder just how much he’ll be able to contribute this season. Yes, I know it’d be easy to look at Sestina as a grad transfer, see the impact that Reid Travis had last year, and assume that Sestina will be able to put up similar numbers. If only it were that easy. Remember, Travis came from a Power 5 conference, where he earned All-Conference honors, and played against a slew of future NBA players in the frontcourt. Sestina came from the Patriot League, and it’s just hard to know how a player will transition from playing against Lehigh and Lafayette every night, to now facing LSU, Tennessee and Florida.

But while I do have concerns about Sestina’s ability to transition from low major to high major, I also can’t deny this: He brings things to the table that no one else on this roster does. Specifically, he should provide size, bulk, physicality and toughness around the rim that the younger players on this roster simply won’t be able to.

The fact that he also has the ability to step out, hit jumpers and space the floor makes him that much more valuable, and because of it, Sestina should still see big-time playing time in 2019-2020.

7) Johnny Juzang, G/F (Freshman)

If you read to the end of this article the one thing you’ll notice is that I drop the word “versatility” about as often as Rick Pitino drops excuses when talking about Stripper-Gate. When it comes to this roster, there is no avoiding it.

And there may be no player that epitomizes Kentucky’s move to versatile, position-less basketball quite like Juzang.

Put simply, Juzang can just do so…many… things on the basketball court. He’s a guy who can handle the ball in a pinch, create off the dribble, and as his AAU coach told me this spring, score on all three levels. Maybe most importantly, he and Tyrese Maxey will likely be the Wildcats most consistent three-point shooters this season. You simply can’t put a price on the floor-spacing that he will provide for this team, and the fact that he can probably guard anywhere from the 2 to 4 positions (depending on the opponent) certainly won’t hurt either.

In the end, I have no idea how many points he’ll score or minutes he’ll play. But to me, Juzang is one of the sneaky big keys to success for the Wildcats this season.

6) Tyrese Maxey, G (Freshman)

Again, to be clear, this isn’t a list of the best long-term NBA prospects at Kentucky this season. If it were, Maxey may be No.1. It also isn’t a list of pure output. Maxey may end up being the team’s leading scorer. Instead, it’s about value and while Maxey is really, insanely, extremely valuable, it is one person’s opinion (mine) that he isn’t more valuable than the guys below him on this list.

But with that said, he is still again, extremely, EXTREMELY valuable.

The reason being, that he can do just about everything on the floor that you could ever want from a guard. He can handle the ball, create for others, play off the ball, score off the dribble and just might be the best three-point shooter on this roster. He’s also a dog on defense. Again, there isn’t a single thing you’d want from a guard on your roster that Maxey isn’t capable of doing.

The only thing that Maxey is lacking at this point is experience, which will come by March.

This kid is going to be a stud. And clearly has insane value to this roster.

5) Immanuel Quickley, G (Sophomore)

Again, it’s all about experience, which is why I have Quickley slightly ahead of Maxey on this list. Not because I’m comparing them as NBA prospects. But because experience wins in March. Just ask Virginia. Or Villanova. Or North Carolina a few years ago. And Quickley does have major experience, as he played in all 37 games for Kentucky last season and got major burn during their run in March. You think that won’t help him when things get tight on the road, or in the NCAA Tournament next March?

But more than just experience what I love about Quickley is his toughness. Remember, this was a guy who began the year as the starter at point guard, moved off the ball, and then eventually to the bench as Ashton Hagans’ backup. Yet despite it, you never heard him complain (at least publicly) and instead, this summer he just got back into the lab (as the kids say) and go to work. And the early returns are that he has been awesome in the Wildcats’ summer workouts.

Furthermore, let’s never forget, this is a kid who came to Kentucky as a McDonald’s All-American and as a recruit that everyone in college basketball wanted. He can play. And I fully expect 2019-2020 to be a breakout season for Quickley.

4) Keion Brooks, F (Freshman)
3) Kahlil Whitney, F (Freshman)

So, I kind of just lumped these guys together because the bottom-line is that they both kind of bring the same thing. Each is a big wing, who can step out, handle the ball, shoot from downtown and also play in and around the rim. They also bring versatility – there’s that buzz word again! – to this team. With each of them in the lineup, Kentucky can either play really small with Brooks/Whitney playing the “four” or they can play big, with one of these two wings playing at the three, with EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards (or potentially Nate Sestina) on the court at the same time.

Now, why are they lumped together? Because it’s just impossible to know who will actually contribute more once the season starts. While Whitney came in with more high school buzz, the early returns (including from KSR’s own Jack Pilgrim) are that both were impressive in summer workouts, and each could contribute in a big way.

My hunch is that Whitney – coming off a big weekend at the Nike Skills Academy in LA – will probably have the upper-hand to start the season. But don’t sleep on Brooks coming along as the season goes on.

2) Ashton Hagans, G (Sophomore)

I’ve already written at length about Hagans this spring, as a player who I believe could be a breakout guy not just at Kentucky, but nationally. Two months after I wrote that article, I still stand by it.

The bottom line is that Hagans has already proven to be one of the elite, on-ball defenders in all of college basketball. The question now is, can his offense catch up? Can he be more consistent getting to the rim, more consistent shooting, and do it all while setting up others?

It’s a question only he can answer. But, if Hagans can evolve on offense to go with his elite on-ball defense, he could be one of the best guards in college basketball. And Kentucky’s ceiling as a team will completely change.

1) EJ Montgomery, F (Sophomore)

It’s interesting because had you asked me to rank these players a week ago or a month ago I would have told you that Hagans was the most important player.

However, I was reading Kyle Tucker’s really good piece from a few weeks ago on the returning players next season and one line jumped out at me. In it, someone was discussing last season’s team, and specifically PJ Washington and Reid Travis and how many “free throws and layups” they created last season. That line really did stick with me, and made me realize just how many easy baskets, within five feet from the rim Kentucky was able to get a year ago. It also made me realize how different is it for a team when they know they can count on 20-30 easy points right around the rim every night.

Which brings us back to Montgomery.

Yes, he’s a completely different player from Washington and Travis and more of a hybrid forward who is comfortable playing away from the basket.

Still, you simply replicate the value of a guy who can get you points at the rim, and Montgomery should do that better than everyone else next season.

Add in the overall improvement in his game, and to me, it’s little debate: EJ Montgomery is the most important player to Kentucky’s success next year.

Article written by Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres is covering football and basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook or e-mail at [email protected] He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”

19 Comments for Ranking The Importance of Each Player on the 2019-2020 Kentucky Basketball Roster

  1. UKFanSC
    9:24 pm August 15, 2019 Permalink

    I know Cal just cringes when anyone tries to rank individuals, but your insights are compelling. I particularly agree with EJ being in a position to rebrand his game, like PJ Washington did.

  2. mashman 93
    9:32 pm August 15, 2019 Permalink

    Great read Torres.

  3. season-3-disc-2
    10:12 pm August 15, 2019 Permalink

    Hahahahaha absolute pointless post….and completely falls short of any kind of relevance when you ranked Maxey 6th. This team needs Maxey to be not only our leading scorer but also to be 17+ppg or we will go nowhere in March. Guard play is what wins championships these days and our guards will ultimately decide how far this team goes.

    • Bluehender
      7:48 am August 16, 2019 Permalink

      The reason why Torres is a writer and you are not…

  4. JerryCat
    10:12 pm August 15, 2019 Permalink

    Terrible list after #1. I think you’re gonna realize the importance of Nick Richards the first time EJ gets in foul trouble or any team with two decent big men

  5. claydwildcat
    10:29 pm August 15, 2019 Permalink

    I’ll never get that time back. Hagans easy #1 Maxey #2. Starting 5 has to be top 5. They are on the floor the most. EJ stepping up is big but I don’t think we can rely on him.

  6. BallDontLie
    10:46 pm August 15, 2019 Permalink

    “Thats just, like, your opinion man” -The Dude

  7. Looother
    11:05 pm August 15, 2019 Permalink

    Interesting and provocative, Aaron…

  8. Bluefelinefan
    11:24 pm August 15, 2019 Permalink

    Great attempt to analyze each players worth. Obviously the true rankings won’t be evident until they hit the floor and will change throughout the season. I like the pieces this team posses along with more experience than usual. Let’s hope the sum is greater than the parts and the team has a #1 ranking by the end of April.

  9. herm89
    11:42 pm August 15, 2019 Permalink

    I would argue that one of Sestina and Richards should be much higher up. There is no guarantee EJ will be the player we hope he will and we are going to need at least two solid (at least) bigs to be contenders. Small ball would be great but defensively we are going to need effective post players to give an answer to teams who are able to slow the pace and try to beat us inside.

  10. mashburnfan1
    2:12 am August 16, 2019 Permalink

    “But because experience wins in March. Just ask Virginia. Or Villanova. Or North Carolina a few years ago.”
    Most interesting comment in the article because IT IS WHAT I HAVE SAID FOR YEARS. Yet I get blasted for saying this is what I don’t like about Cal and his NBA Draft being the most important date for UK theory. Only title he won was with an all world FR {happens every 10-20 years} and an experienced group around him. Yes a Soph who plays a ton of minutes in 35-38 games his FR year is an experienced player by March of his Soph year in todays NCAA basketball.

    • nocode96
      1:46 pm August 16, 2019 Permalink

      You don’t say it like that though, so don’t pretend you do numbnuts. You shlt on the players and the program. That’s why no one likes you, it’s not because of your opinions, which you’re too stupid to realize. Even us homers know and publicly state that we know experience is crucial, we know plenty of the things you say, the problem is your shltty attitude, your belief that you or someone else could do better than Cal, and your “I’m old and refuse to adapt” philosophy. Like it or not, 99% of college players, maybe more, would easily take being a lottery pick or first rounder over winning a championship. That’s just how it is, and you seem to think someone like Eric Musselman could come in here with a bunch of 3 and 4 star guys and could do better than we already are. Cal saved our program and made us relevant again, and you’re too damned prideful and stupid to recognize that. It’s not 1970 anymore grandpa, and just because your opinion is yours, that doesn’t mean it’s right, not does it protect you from all of us calling you out for your dumb, ignorant, and petty takes.

  11. Righteous1
    2:45 am August 16, 2019 Permalink

    I have to agree with Mashburn fan. You should have ranked the NBA potential for these players because the NBA draft is the most important day of the tear to the 10 million dollar man. I do give Cal credit for moving the goalpost with the UK administration. UK players in the NBA draft is the goal and not Final Fours or championships. This will be 5 years in a row with no Final Four. People should save their money and go to the NBA draft because the UK coach and players will be there. I look for UK/UL to move their game to Lucas Oil Stadium in the near future. Certain SEC games at Rupp will be the only games worth going to unless you are in to the team’s that are coming to Rupp this year pre-SEC other than Louisville.

  12. UKLugo
    8:04 am August 16, 2019 Permalink

    I dunno about this list. But you know what they say, “Opinions are like buttholes. Everyone has one and they all stink.”
    I think an argument can be made that this team will go as far as Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery take them. If they are playing 30-32 effective minutes, then we’ll be good. For all the talk about small ball, if those two are logging regular starter minutes, we’ll actually be pretty big on the floor; and still versatile. Richards reaching his potential will allow this team to be the best version of themselves. He and EJ are the most important pieces as long as Hagans, Quickley, and Maxey are what we expect. Those would be my top 5 most important.

  13. Aar
    8:43 am August 16, 2019 Permalink

    Great article, list and read. The only change I would make is moving Nick Richards from 9th to 1st on this list.

    According to Cal “without a post presence your team is farce”. I may have the last word wrong but it makes the point. Montgomery is at his best in a stretch role that is not truly a post presence. Richards is the one true post presence this team has. If he can play 30 minutes per night without foul trouble, how easily do all of the other pieces fall into place and how much less pressure is on each and every player on the team? I’m not asking him for more than 5-6 points in those 30 minutes but I do want 15+ rebounds and 3+ blocks (sounds like WCS or Nerlens Noel, right?)

    The most important player need not be your best player. Sometimes it needs to be the one in a key position that makes everybody else better. Who was more important Josh Harrellson or Brandon Knight (or Eloy Vargas)?

    • BallDontLie
      8:59 am August 16, 2019 Permalink

      Are you saying that Jorts was more important than Knight on that team?

    • Aar
      12:25 pm August 16, 2019 Permalink

      No. It’s just that an argument could be made for Jorts as the MVP of that team. The argument would be based upon his ability to keep opponents’ rim protectors occupied which allowed Knight to shine. Without Jorts that team would probably have played 1 or 2 fewer games.

  14. Frank Zappa
    1:54 pm August 18, 2019 Permalink

    For some reason I was unable to reply to the ridiculous comment made by rightous1 regarding Cal. IMHO his name should be wrongous1…
    “During his first 10 seasons at Kentucky, no head coach has won more games (305), more NCAA Tournament games (31), reached more Final Fours (4), signed more top-10 recruits (23) or produced more NBA lottery picks (21)” This a quote from a previous article about Cal’s new decade. Seems like pretty solid results to me!

    • Frank Zappa
      2:20 pm August 18, 2019 Permalink

      Stats used above should be attributed to Chris Fisher (Cat’s Pause) BTW.